With Open Arms

During each Advent season we are encouraged to prepare our hearts to receive the infant Jesus once again. This Advent, as I recovered from cancer surgery and treatments, I decided the best way to prepare my heart was to stop actively seeking inspiration for my writing, and to simply allow God to nourish my soul. To that end, I stopped writing my blog and also didn’t do the “Watching for Christ” Facebook devotions. Instead, each morning I asked God, “What would you have me know today?” and then journaled any answers that came to me. Christmas is now only a couple of days away. What have I learned about preparing my heart in these past weeks?

The image of taking and holding the infant Jesus keeps coming to me. I like to imagine I would do this as I would receive any precious gift- with my arms open, extended, ready to embrace and treasure what I am about to be given. But to actually open my arms as I eagerly and lovingly reach for Jesus, I may need to do something else first. Perhaps I need to let go of another worldly treasure. Perhaps I need to stop wrapping my arms around me in self-protection. Perhaps I need to release my fear of opening myself to something new. What do I need to release in order to fully embrace Jesus?

I believe we tend to tightly cling to those things that give us a sense of control. For me, it is releasing my fear that cancer may return one day. I try to do everything possible to be healthy- eat nutritiously, exercise regularly, rest well, nourish my spirit, and take treatments and supplements. But in the end, I am not in control of my outcome. Whether or not the cancer returns is out of my control. But if I let go of this fear in order to embrace the love of God as shown in the infant Jesus, I receive the gifts of hope, trust, joy and peace- NO MATTER WHAT.

We can do our best, choose wisely, live well, be prepared, organize our plans, and prayerfully ask for guidance. But we cannot control our outcomes. How wonderful that the infant Jesus is our perfect example of this! Jesus lived a life of faithful obedience, even though he couldn’t control his outcome: his death on a cross. How wonderful that God then turned this terrible outcome into victory, with Jesus’ glorious resurrection!

This Christmas, I will open myself to eagerly embrace the infant Jesus, who comes to me in lowly circumstances. I will draw him close to my heart and ask him to replace my fearful need to control my outcome. I will know- because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection- that God will make GOOD from anything that comes my way. And this is the most precious gift of all. Come, dear Jesus. Come.

Walking Gently on the Journey

You could say that I’m a wimp. I don’t consider myself much of a fighter, and I try to avoid conflict as much as possible. But after my cancer diagnosis, I began to notice courageous words and phrases such as “the battle against cancer”, “you can fight this”, “working to beat this disease”, and “waging the war on cancer”. Battle. Fight. Beat. War. Strength. Enemy. Brave. Tough. Survivor. Words that didn’t describe or inspire me. And so I began to wonder if I wasn’t going to do well. Right from the start I didn’t feel as if I had the grit and determination to FIGHT this battle I had been given. My lack of fighting instincts actually frightened me. How could I take on all of the aggressive qualities that I needed to be cancer free? 

Fortunately, over time I realized that the best way for me to face my cancer is to remain my authentic self. As much as possible, I should live each day as I would normally hope to live- and for me, it is to walk gently on the journey. The qualities that I admire in people- gentleness, humility, peacefulness, kindness and joy- are still the ones I can strive to have. I can continue to eat nutritiously, walk regularly, cherish relationships, remain aware of God’s presence and healing love, appreciate nature’s beauty, explore my creativity, and savor the moments of each day. I can see my cancer simply as an unwelcome guest that will soon be leaving, instead of an enemy to be defeated. The chemotherapy is doing the battle for me. I only have to keep walking the journey and living each day as abundantly and as healthfully as possible. 

We can see how God created all living things with unique gifts to thrive in this world. Animals may have keen eyesight, the ability to fly or run swiftly, sharp claws, camouflaged bodies, or protective shells. Trees and plants may have strong limbs, protective thorns, or flexible stems. Each quality helps all of nature to endure the adversities that life brings.  

God has given each of us unique gifts for thriving in this world, too. When we face troubles or adversity of any kind, we have an opportunity to truly discover our authentic selves and our unique gifts. The qualities we would like to emulate can be tested and strengthened as we endure and overcome our troubles. Whatever trouble we face, we can hone our personal integrity by discovering and letting our true selves shine. Is patience one of your strengths? Perhaps you will find it helpful when trials seem unending. Are you optimistic? You may be able to find the bright side of this trouble you’re facing. Do you wish to be more kind? Even in our trials, we can find opportunities to bless others.  

We do know that when we encounter trouble- even if we use our unique qualities- we may not be able to control our outcome. But we are making the best of each moment we are given. We are living with the integrity of being the person God created us to be. I’d rather live this one day as my true self than to live a long but inauthentic, unfulfilling life. Wouldn’t you? 

I hope you treasure this day as you savor each moment of blessing or trial; discovering who God created you to be, and living as your true, authentic self.

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Bicycle Lessons

“Are you angry with God?” The question was asked of us as Jim and I endured quite a trying summer that included chemotherapy, open-heart surgery, cancer surgery, and water damage to our basement after torrential rains. 

God is beyond our understanding. I can’t even begin to explain God, or how God “works”, or what God’s reasoning is for the way life happens. This is the sacred mystery of our faith, of our trust in the One who loves us- who loves us way beyond our worldly comprehension. But when I consider God, I like to think of bicycle lessons. 

I’m thankful that my parents gave me a bicycle when I was young- and coached me as I learned to ride it! Oh, the “adventures” I had. Bicycle riding gave me a new sense of freedom and a bit of independence. I rode my bike to a summer recreation program, to the library, and to visit friends. I cruised the neighborhood sidewalks, pulling fearless friends wearing roller skates behind me. I also learned important lessons: keeping my balance, watching for cars and hazards in the road, leaning with the bike for turns, and braking gently on downhill slopes. I remember the exhilaration of riding with “no hands” on the handlebars, the feel of the wind on my face when I pedaled as fast as I could, the joy of being momentarily airborne over bumps on my route.  

When I became a parent, I realized the sense of anxiety and surrender my parents felt when they taught me to ride my bike. As much as I wanted my children to know the joy, freedom and independence of cycling… I knew there would be falls and injuries and tears. Parents KNOW what can happen. We hold our breath as our precious child wobbles down the road, wondering when the fall will occur and what injuries there will be. We hope and pray that our child will always be careful, will make wise decisions and be vigilant, and will not encounter any trouble on the way. But we must surrender that responsibility to them as they ride away. 

I like to think of God as a loving parent who sets us free to learn to travel this journey of life, much like a bicycle ride that is filled with moments of exhilaration but also times of pain. God provides the teaching and the coaching. We keep improving in our “life-cycling” skills- NOT because God is pushing us off our bikes to teach us lessons- but because God is allowing us to keep navigating and asking for help as we go. We can always turn to God for instruction and direction. And when we do stumble or fall, God is lovingly there to heal and comfort us. 

So every day, I am thanking God for this gift of life, this bicycle ride we are journeying together. I have felt the joy of times when life is smooth and easily navigated. I have felt the comfort of God’s love and healing when life is a series of tumbles and injuries. I have treasured the beautiful scenery along my route. I have been forever blessed by wonderful companions who have joined me on the way. Yes, the ride has been difficult and painful at times, but oh, I have had such joy-filled, delightful moments with precious loved ones!  

Certainly I hope that my life, this bicycle journey, will be long and abundant; filled with many beautiful sights, times with wonderful loved ones and friends, and new experiences to enjoy. But I also gratefully know that, should I hit a sudden bump in the road, God will be there to pick me up and carry me home. And I will be so very blessed and thankful that I even had one moment of the sheer joy of the wind on my face, of being airborne and free, on this amazing ride we call life.

Unexpected Guardian Angels

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I met my guardian angel during one of the first of my regular walks at Swan Creek metropark. As I approached him on the path, I offered a smile and my “Good morning!” greeting. But this dark, burly and surly stranger only scowled at me and barked, “I have to get out of here before somebody pisses me off!” Little did I suspect that this was the beginning of a treasured friendship with a new guardian angel!

Over some time and several encounters, we eventually began to chat and joke with each other. I learned that he’s on a mission to ‘find a woman.’ He always asks that I let him know if I find a naughty woman who may be a possibility for him. He also likes to try out his pick-up lines with me, asking my opinion as to whether I think they are worthy to use in his quest. One day his line was, “Is your name God? Because I’m sure I’ve died and gone to heaven!” (I’m a combination of quite relieved and a little disappointed that he finds me a safe sounding board for this matter.)

One day as we talked, I introduced myself- but he simply told me to call him ‘The Black Guy.’ Maybe this is what true guardian angels do. They come into our lives unexpectedly, improve our lives in wonderful ways, but have no need to be named or recognized for doing so.

A few months ago we walked past each other, exchanging the usual greetings and jokes. But on this day he suddenly stopped to turn around and ask, “How are YOU?” I walked closer to him and shared that I had just learned I had cancer. And my guardian angel revealed himself in a new way. The Black Guy told me that he too, had once had cancer, as he lifted his shirt to show his many long scars. He went on to say that he “wasn’t religious but did believe in a higher power,” and surprised me by saying that his prayers are what helped him through his illness. He then told me that he prayed for me and the others who walk this park- every day! The Black Guy instructed me to stay strong and stay faithful, and all would be well. I believe him. Under this tough and burly exterior was the deep goodness of a caring angel.

Since then, whenever I see my friend, my guardian angel, he always reminds me to “Stay strong!” I may never know his name, and I may never know more than his quest for a woman, his faithful recovery, and his deep abiding prayers for everyone, including me. But he serves as a reminder that God is always sending us love, even in the form of unexpected guardian angels who encourage us on our path. Angels who remind us to “stay strong and faithful.” Angels who pray for us every day. Anonymous angels who serve only for the love of God, in unique and diverse ways.

 

“Patches of Godlight”

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Every once in a while we are reminded to “live in the present.” This is a wise reminder, because this present moment is truly all we have, isn’t it? We can’t return to the past, nor can we leap to the future. Jesus said, “Do not worry about tomorrow.” He knew how unnecessarily burdensome it is to anticipate the future. We also have heard the advice, “Leave the past behind.” It does us no good to look at the past with regret or longing. Life is more abundant and fully savored when we are present to the experiences, relationships, surroundings or thoughts that we currently have before us. We only have THIS very moment, this precious minute that we are living right now.

But sometimes the present is exactly where we don’t want to be! We find ourselves longing for better days from our past or wishing for more promising days in our future. We wish for the times after the big work project is complete… when we can take a vacation… once school is finished… when Friday arrives… after the divorce is finalized… when the house is sold… once the chemotherapy is over. When life is difficult or challenging, the present time is the very time we are wishing away- not the time we are savoring!

Jan Karon, author of the Mitford Series books, has written a book titled Patches of Godlight. The book is presented as a collection of favorite quotes and Bible verses compiled by the beloved Episcopalian priest in the Mitford books, Father Tim. Patches of Godlight is described as “words of wisdom from Mitford- a treasury of quotes that inspire and comfort Father Tim.” We are invited to enjoy this book, “for words that speak to the heart, and thinking that opens the windows of the soul.”

The words, “Patches of Godlight” came to me yesterday as I walked at the park. I enjoyed seeing the sunlight scattering playfully on the path, moving with the shadows of the leaves and branches. The sunshine gave its bright radiance to the greenery- and to my countenance. The sunlit places also brought a richer depth and color to the shaded areas of green and brown. I noticed how these “Patches of Godlight” blessed my walk and my soul with beauty and joy.

When our present moment is a desperate time we would rather NOT face, we are given “Patches of Godlight” to sustain us. Even in our despair, if we watch for these patches we can find blessings and reasons for hope. Sometimes these patches are favorite Bible verses or inspirational quotes- like Father Tim’s. Sometimes these patches are our faithful, trusting prayers. Sometimes these patches are the kind loved ones who check in on us, pray for us, and help us through these times. Sometimes these patches are radiant sunbeams streaming through the shade, a little bluebird resting at the feeder, or festive daisies adorning the roadside. These patches are our comfort and inspiration when the present time is difficult. And always, always these patches are gifts from God, who promises to love us and help us- through every precious moment of our lives.

Thoughts Within My Bald Head

I’ve discovered that there are many benefits in having no hair! My chemotherapy-induced baldness has blessed me in several ways:

  • Time savings: I have shorter shower time; I don’t need to dry or style my hair; I don’t need to shave my legs; I don’t use mascara; I don’t trim my eyebrows
  • Cost savings: I have no haircuts, no highlights, and no purchases of shampoo, conditioner, or hairspray
  • Guilt savings: I am never to blame when a hair is found in food
  • Frustration savings: I have NO bad hair days!

But the most significant blessing is that my baldness makes my “woundedness” public. Strangers are kind. A few have even offered to pray. My baldness serves as a universal symbol for a different type of sorority- there is an immediate recognition and solidarity from others who have had cancer. I’m given understanding and compassion when I’m not my usual self. I have no need to explain or share my story. It is conveyed simply by my hairless head.

When my husband Jim had open-heart surgery, I told him that I was sorry that most people would have no way of knowing what he had been through. Strangers did not know why he was moving slowly or looking weary. He didn’t receive the kindness, prayers, or understanding from strangers as I have. People were unable to see his chest scar, unable to notice his significant wound. He appeared normal on the outside, so no one could know that he had also been through a life-changing, major trial.

I believe that everybody is wounded in some way, but most of our wounds are hidden. I hope that I can learn to treat others as if their wounds were visible. I hope that I can generously share the same compassion I have received. Could we imagine that each person we encounter holds a sign that might read, “grieving,” “injured,” “lonely,” “abused,” “ill,” or “anxious?” Perhaps then we would become kinder, gentler, and more compassionate to each stranger we encounter. Perhaps then our wounds- and our world- would become more gracious places of tenderness and healing.